I saw Kore-eda Hirokazu Aerial doll on the festival circuit in the fall of 2009 in Toronto.
Watching it again more than a decade later, I realized that what I took away from the film was not so much a summary of what happened — in fact, I remembered little the story or details of the situation — but rather a feeling, a tone, a mood, of curiosity and melancholy mixed together. Also, the uncomfortable sound of vinyl polymer rubbing against itself.
One day, without explanation, a sex doll comes to life and transforms into a thinking, moving and feeling person, played by Korean actress Bae Doo-na. She experiences life and society outside the cramped Tokyo apartment of her owner, a service worker with a very long commute named Hideo. While he’s off the waiting tables, she’s free to roam the city streets, interact with the (sometimes bewildered, but always polite) community, and pursue her innocent interest in the human condition.
Bae, of course, became a global star, seamlessly transitioning between Korean, Japanese, and American auteur filmmakers and blockbuster projects. Many will know her from The Wachowski’s cloud atlas and their Netflix Sense8 series, but his performance here is a marvel.
She’s cold to the touch, yet emotionally warm, discovering what it’s like to become the center of one’s own existence. She is an active witness and occasional participant, both of the myriad human touchpoints in a major city and of the ubiquitous municipal workers who collect the “combustible trash” people have dumped on the public sidewalk right outside their homes. .
What she sees, what we see, is the great loneliness of modern existence, laid bare. And keep in mind, this is before the global takeover of smart phones, social media, and global pandemic lockdowns. Kore-eda’s work has often explored the threshold of community and an ostracized group or individual. He has made nearly one film a year, every year since. Here in 2022, Aerial doll sits almost exactly halfway through his career as a narrative filmmaker, for which he has received numerous accolades, including the Palme d’Or.
The writer-director’s signature “community” is present in Aerial doll, even though they barely meet or interact with each other, disparate souls within walking distance of Hideo’s apartment, as he shuttles far, far away. There’s the lonely bulimic drunk on coca cola and carbohydrates, the office worker who is well aware of her impending displacement by a younger colleague, the retired woman who wants to know the latest gory details about a local murder of the cop pace that patrols every morning, and an old man sitting on Tokyo’s loneliest park bench, overlooking an impersonal set of urban residential towers.
A video store, and its employees, take center stage, blissfully unaware that the notion of physical media, rented from a store, is about to be replaced by streaming. At some point, the owner laments that they, themselves, are the lonely substitute for seeing a movie in a theater with your neighbors.
In his documentary series on the history of cinema, The history of cinemareleased a few years later Aerial doll, film critic Mark Cousins devotes much time to the visual and emotional power of wind. He quotes pioneering silent filmmaker DW Griffith: “What modern film lacks is beauty, the beauty of the wind moving through the trees. Koreeda leans into this idea and delivers a film that is decidedly modern, with the wind – the breath – being the soul of his film. It’s beautiful in its quiet portrayal of the mundane as significant.
Aerial doll is not necessarily subtle in what it is, or how it is, but he is patient in his observation. The film’s two key male characters literally and figuratively inflate the main character. Hideo, who bought the sex toy to ease his loneliness and as a replacement for a girlfriend, unemotionally uses the included pump after their sexual encounters.
We will see her throwing it away with the trash, shortly after it comes to life. The video club saleswoman, Junichi, with whom she is gently exploring a voluntary relationship, blows air directly into her navel. The visual is framed like an orgasm.
Wind chimes and floating dandelion seeds play as big a role in the film’s visual language as the physical transformation from doll to real girl. Did you know that the dandelion seed has a kind of special air bubble that forms above each seed, which helps to keep it in the air longer?
Later, his Geppetto-like creator talks to him about breath and magic, but notably does nothing to otherwise interfere with his personal journey. He asks her if she likes how things are going so far. She has a compelling answer, but the question is posed more directly to the audience.
His argument is clear, and Kore-eda avoids any comforting subtlety: we will all be replaced, eventually. We are left to enjoy the sights and sounds, the pleasure and the pain, maybe make things a little better for those who come after us, and try not to hurt ourselves too much along the way.
Life is… transitory. Oh so transient. We are all “flammable waste” in the end. Aerial doll is terribly sad about this reality, enough that I think I internalized most of its details when first viewing it a long time ago. And yet, it is still topical, and universal. Like the best of cinema, it has not aged a bit.
- Yoshiie Goda
- Hirokazu Koreeda
- Bae Doona
- Arata Iura
- Itsuji Itao